Graduate enrollment growth is speeding up — for now

Dive Brief:

  • Graduate student enrollment is tracking considerably ahead of where it was a year ago, accelerating its ongoing growth, according to the latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
  • The uptick comes as undergraduate enrollment contracts. Experts attribute the difference in part to many graduate programs being online pre-pandemic and student demographics.
  • Several factors could weaken graduate enrollment, however, including the continuing health crisis, restrictions on international students coming to the U.S. and competition from institutions in other countries.

Dive Insight:

More graduate students were heading to U.S. colleges before the pandemic, and higher education enrollment experts say the crisis and resulting recession is speeding up that growth.

Graduate programs were an important part of colleges’ online expansion, which saw schools offer options in an increasing array of specialties. And the pipeline for graduate programs was expanding as more people earned bachelor’s degrees. 

The pandemic is adding more fuel. That includes people seeking refuge from the tough job market in graduate programs, and fast-growing fields requiring such degrees, Suzanne Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, wrote in an email. One indicator of the former is the recent uptick in MBA program applications, which for years had been declining.

Megan Adams, managing director of research at consultancy EAB, predicts the pandemic will bring on a modest, temporary bump in graduate enrollment mostly concentrated at large, online institutions with big marketing and recruiting operations. Some but not all of those are for-profits.

The for-profit sector posted outsized growth in graduate student enrollment during the last recession compared to private nonprofit and public colleges. And for-profits are again ahead.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center


Graduate enrollment at four-year, for-profits is up 7.4% year-over-year in the Clearinghouse’s latest data release, which accounts for about three-quarters of the 3,600 schools it covers. Meanwhile, overall graduate enrollment is ahead by 2.9% from last year. 

Primarily online colleges, most of which are for-profits in the report, saw their graduate enrollment grow 9.7% this year, compared to a 2.5% annual increase last fall, according to the Clearinghouse.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center


Heading into the pandemic, the number of master’s degrees being awarded was largely flat while the count of graduate certificates granted spiked, according to an October report from the Council of Graduate Schools. The Clearinghouse, in its latest report, shows postbaccalaureate and graduate certificates reporting the biggest year-over-year gains. 

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center


Still, enrollment in graduate-level programs is expected to flatten over the next decade, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

There are a few factors that could cause graduate enrollment growth to slow. One is the anticipated long-term impact of the projected decrease in college-age students

Another, more immediate concern, is a drop-off in international students. Enrollment of foreign students in graduate programs decreased for the third straight year in 2019-20, according to new data from the Institute of International Education. That year the total number of international students attending U.S. colleges decreased for the first time in more than a decade.

The pandemic, combined with the Trump administration’s new and proposed restrictions on international students’ access to the U.S. and more options from colleges outside the country, could further depress graduate enrollment in the U.S.

“If restrictions remain in place, the pandemic remains rampant, then this good news story about graduate education might not last,” said Richard Garrett, chief research officer at advisory firm Eduventures.

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